With the decision to hold the Grand Prix still pending, February 14th couldn’t really have come at a worse time for the Bahrain government. The conflicting need to prepare for a possible crackdown whilst also projecting a positive image is a challenge of epic proportions. Negotiating this tightrope was never going to be easy, and although the government permitted a 3 day gathering for opposition parties as Meqsha, they also committed a strategic faux pas by neglecting to grant visas to a number of foreign news teams. This includes correspondents from the BBC, New York Times, Al Jazeera English, the Independent and the Christian Science Monitor (CSM).
The official reasons for denying the visas were; ‘high volume of requests‘, failure to specify dates, and safety concerns. This idea of ‘safety concerns’ seems a little vague, though the IAA are probably basing their anxieties on the fact that an Al-Arabiya cameraman was harassed about a week ago, (despite police protection). As harassment goes, this was fortunate timing for the Bahrain government, who have also been trying to deflect criticism for not allowing certain human rights organisations into the country ahead of the February 14th. Anyway, let’s hope the media teams who have been given visas are afforded better protection than Sheikh AlDeen Abdulla Ahmed, who couldn’t help adding that he had been woefully misled by al-Wefaq.
The real reason for denying visas is probably more to do with the issue of wayward foreign journalists bearing witness to another potential crackdown. This would undermine Bahrain’s attempts at strategic political communication and PR, which obviously serve to emphasise Bahrain’s commitment to reform and progress. Indeed, Bahrain have been fortunate to get some positive press from the BBC over the past two months. This piece seemed to gobble up the fact that Bahrain’s labour ministry was helping reinstate sacked F1 employees, despite the fact that the Ministry of Labour have been accused of misrepresenting the amount of people who have returned to work (GFBTU say 1674 still out of work, MOL say 179). The other was entitled ‘Bahrain police under attack after Shi’a [Isa Qassim] cleric’s call’, and seemed to de-contextualise the upsurge in violence whilst simultaneously reproducing slightly sectarian rhetoric. Neither article states who the author is. Interestingly, the IAA have actually granted a visa to one BBC team, but rejected it for another. Naturally this has led to suspicions that only the more sympathetic journalists from the BBC have been admitted.
These attempts at strategically controlling both Bahrain’s reputation and the global visibility of what happens in Bahrain come as the government attempts increases its effort to ensure the visibility of its citizens. The Gulf Daily News reported on January 25th that parliament had unanimously approved a plan to have CCTV cameras installed across the country. (For parliament to unanimously agree on something, it must have been a hell of a plan!) This plan was necessitated by the escalation of ‘violence, vandalism and sabotage’ (In case you’re wondering what they mean, they’re talking about things like this). Considering that the plan was only approved on January 25th 2012, the MOI have wasted little time in implementing it. I am assuming the plan ratified by parliament two weeks ago is a different plan than a similar project in Manama that appeared to have begun back in 2010 /see here.
For anyone doubting the MOI’s commitment to the project, numerous photos and videos have been posted that show surveillance equipment being fitted at certain ‘strategic’ locations around Bahrain. This video reportedly shows a camera being erected in Duraz. Another photo shows how CCTV cameras have been erected on Dana Mall, which is located by the motorway leading to where the Pearl Roundabout used to be. This photo shows a camera suspended near Bilad al-Qadeem. Others have reported that similar CCTV cameras exist near the entrances to Karrana, Abu Saiba, Nuwaidrat, al-Eker and Budaiya. There’s also said to be a video camera opposite al-Wefaq’s headquarters, no doubt to film the hoards of suspicious looking beards who descend nightly to demand the implementation of wilayet al-faqih, their turbans literally brimming with Iranian toman.
One would also hope that the government are acting with the same urgency regarding the implementation of BICI reccomendation (1722g), which states that ‘there should be audiovisual recording of all official interviews with detained persons’.Don’t get me wrong, they have begun implementing it, and have gone to great lengths to detail the whole process, from mentioning the ‘architectural drawings’ and ‘German companies’ to the careful process of ‘tendering’ and ‘testing’. Furthermore, in order to make sure everything is just right, the system will first be installed in Hoora Police Station. As for the Public Prosecution, they already have a room that has been fitted with audiovisual equipment, though this still needs to be tested before they roll it out to other rooms. This softly softly catchy monkey approach no doubt adopted to ensure the interrogations rooms are just right. I expect the @govactionbh will be eager to let us know when the next stage has been implemented.
So why is this nationwide rolling out of surveillance happening? Some might argue that it acts as a deterrent, though this is only applicable with certain crimes, specifically things like car theft. I doubt it will curb vandalism either, as this video of a Bahraini youth climbing a lamp post to destroy a surveillance camera clearly illustrates (Oh the irony). It appears to have no effect on violent crime, and certainly doesn’t prevent the outbreak of widespread protests, or ‘rioting’ as some people might want to call it (Look at what happened in London and Vancouver). Sometimes it simply shifts (or displaces) crime from areas with CCTV to areas without CCTV. Also, given the fact that the police tend to video most protests, what advantages are these extra cameras having?
There’s an argument to be made that CCTV helps identify those who commit crimes afterwards, though this depends on a number of factors, not least what is actually counted as a crime. For example, it was announced yesterday that insulting the King, the country’s flag, or the country’s emblem would be punishable with up to 5 years in prison or a BD10,000. Given that the crime is ‘serious’ enough to be punishable by custodial sentence, does that mean anyone filmed chanting ‘down with Hamad’ is going to be punished? Or is only going to be reserved for only those committing more serious crimes? The distinction is important, especially for those who say ‘if you’re not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about’, as it highlights the fact that what is considered illegal and what might be considered wrong are two completely separate issues.
In addition to how one counts crime, there is the related issue of who counts as a criminal. There are volumes of user generated videos and photos that shows the riot police committing various acts of vandalism and violence, yet this rarely, if ever leads to any disciplinary procedures. (The most notable exception was perhaps when police officers in Shakura were filmed from multiple angles brutalising some youth. This incident managed to prompt near universal condemnation in Bahrain and the MOI took notice ). On the whole, resarch suggests that CCTV is only effective in certain contexts. So why the need in Bahrain?
Well, as a resident in the world’s leading CCTV state (UK), my anxiety is that this culture of surveillance is being exported to Bahrain. We already have ( in Britain) a list of ‘domestic extremists’ thanks to the likes of ACPO – a private company company funded by the Home Office and run by police chiefs. ACPO, of which John Yates was a small part, have only recently been forced to comply with freedom of information requests following their involvement in the Mark Kennedy scandal. Although ACPO’s future is uncertain, and some of its duties have already been ceded to Scotland Yard, the fact that this non-accountable private company was ever involved in sensitive intelligence gathering is ludicrous (not to mention them flogging info from the police national computer).
Anyway, I digress slightly. Yates’s mandate so far seems unclear, and whether or not he is bringing in his expertise to help create a more advanced system to database ‘domestic extremists’ is unclear. It’s not an entirely unreasonable assumption though, especially when we consider the post 9/11 milieu of paranoia, one that has spawned a rhetoric of hyperbole that seeks to brand almost everyone an extremist, from those who don’t pay tax, to those who engage in lawful direct action. Indeed, for those wondering whether or not they are a domestic extremist, it’s a valid question. Even the likes of NCDE (part of APCO), who are charged with combating it, don’t seem to know for sure. As a result, they’ve hedged their bets, and grouped it into five themes; animal rights, extreme right wing, extreme left wing, environmental and, god forbid, ‘emerging trends’. I have been described as a Twitter terrorist before, which I guess I’ll file under ‘ emerging trends’.
Anyway, before I indulge in any more twitter terrorism, I am going to see if ACPO hold any details about me, – then maybe browse their plans to integrate face recognition with CCTV to enable them to better track domestic extremists. Rule Brittania!
Many thanks to @JohnHorneUK for the info on ACPO.